Skip to main content

The Inside View

If science is good for climate change, why not for GMOs?

If we want potatoes and oranges on grocery shelves 10 years from now, we're going to have to dig in to some inconvenient science.

We have an important battle going in our society: the conflict between science and emotion — facts vs. fabrications and nuance vs. simplicity. When I started working in the field of sustainability, I thought science was sacrosanct. As tough scientific issues arose, I soon learned that I was wrong. Today, science is more based on convenience. What data can I find to fit my personal viewpoint?

You can find this conflict in many places, where prevailing, straightforward science is brushed to the side. Climate change is a telling example. The vast preponderance of science shows us that climate change is real, and mankind has an impact.

Yet in America we have a sizable climate-denying onslaught that is a slap in the face to science. Those who believe in climate change, myself included, are baffled as to why others aren’t on board.

Oddly, these same science-wavers, when it comes to genetically modified organisms for crops and food, flip in favor of non-science. The vast majority of studies show GMOs are safe for public health and the environment, yet many climate champions are against them.

That’s why most of my sustainability friends look at me as if I am crazed when I say to them, "Let’s be open to the use of technology in food."

Sustainability advocates can’t have it both ways. If we want science to rule, we cannot bend when the science does not conform to our entrenched belief.

By the way, don’t get me wrong. I am not pro-GMO. But neither am I anti-GMO. I am on the side of the World Health Organization that says we should look at GMOs on a case-by-case basis.

Sustainability advocates can’t have it both ways. If we want science to rule, we cannot bend when the science does not conform to our entrenched belief.

For example, back in the mid-'90s, when Monsanto developed its first GMO potato, I led a cross-functional team to assess its value for McDonald’s and our customers. We could not find any clear benefit, so we declined.

Recently, I’ve been tracking the efforts to save the orange. It’s fascinating. It started in May 2014 with reading "A Race To Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA" in The New York Times.

GMOs are at the center of this life-or-death story. Splicing the DNA from spinach may prevent the "citrus greening" disease that is destroying oranges. Without GMO intervention, we may not have oranges from the United States in our future.

The story explores the "wall of opposition," "the Monsanto Effect" and "the Creep Factor." For example, a spinach gene, which exists in slightly different forms in hundreds of plants and animals, produces a protein that attacks the invading bacteria that is destroying the orange. In the article, a leading scientific research from Texas A&M, Erik Mirkov, faced skepticism even from growers. "Will my juice taste like spinach?" one asked.

National Geographic’s "Can Genetic Engineering Save the Florida Orange" is another full exploration into the dilemma of science vs. perception.

Can science win with consumers?

Even if science wins in the laboratory, it may not win with the consumer. As the article points out:

"Until the fruit is out there, it's hard to say whether consumers will buy it. The idea of spinach DNA in an orange, even if safe and odorless, could just be too much, Mirkov worries: ‘Some people might say, 'I guess I'll drink apple juice instead.'"

We can save a needed industry, providing a needed fruit for society — yet the environmentalists cry foul. This anti-GMO hardheadedness is likely to produce harsher environmental impacts.

And talk about unintended consequences. According to Mike Aerts, director of production and supply-chain management at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, we may end up eating Brazilian oranges, because they are allowed to spray more pesticides on their oranges than what is allowed in the United States.

Aerts wrote me:

"While transgenic technology is not the single solution, the techniques used pose no more risk than conventional breeding (according to the National Academy of Sciences, AMA, many, many others). Numerous other examples beyond oranges and potatoes exist along these same lines as well, such as virus-resistant papayas, golden rice, virus-resistant cassavas, golden bananas, allergy-free peanuts, chickens that do not pass on avian influenza, non-browning potatoes, non-browning apples, and many, many more. Science, truth, reason and facts have to dominate this discussion, and there are still many good opportunities for crop and animal improvements that can benefit the farmer, the environment, the consumer and the needy."

The plight of potatoes and oranges are opportunities to ask the sustainability community for scientific open-mindedness. Why is using technology to improve our lives so cool for phones, cars and clothing, but shunned for food?

Now I know people want their food "natural" and "real." So do I. GMOs give people the heebie-jeebies. They seem sinister and very unnatural. Certainly, Monsanto’s style of introducing them to the world without much stakeholder involvement was a big mistake in the '90s. They have paid a dear price for that. But should we as a society blackball all food technology based on one company, for actions way in the past?

Times change. Technologies advance. Fast-forward to last year as Simplot’s new Innate potato was approved by regulators for use in the United States. According to Simplot, this potato has clear benefits, 28 percent less waste, addressing a key issue of our times: food waste. The company projects saving 1.4 billion tons of potato waste if used universally.

Do you want fries with that?

Simplot’s use of GMO is not transgenic — that is, spliced from a foreign species — but intragenic, using genes only from wild and cultivated potatoes. It can reduce acrylamide — a chemical created in foods when starches and other carbohydrates are heated at high temperatures — dramatically, by as much as 70 percent. There is concern that acrylamide may be a carcinogen. This is not an easy benefit to translate to the consumer, is it?

The opponents to GMOs point out the fear of the unknown. They say there’s not enough testing, that we should be precautionary to protect against unintended consequences. When is the quantity of scientific consensus enough? For instance, a recent Pew Research Report found that roughly the same percent of scientists believe that GM foods are safe to eat (88 percent) as believe climate change is caused by human activity (87 percent). It’s hard to get a unanimous consensus on anything, especially in science.

However, the issue of GMO safety has had support from most major science-based organizations in the world, including the American Medical Association and the National Academies of Science.

Roughly the same percent of scientists believe that GM foods are safe to eat (88 percent) as believe climate change is caused by human activity (87 percent).

Check out "The Daily Show’s" Aasif Mandvi’s "investigation" into Simplot’s GMO potato. It’s both hilarious and depressing. He lampoons the shaky arguments of the anti-GMO community in a cutting, perceptive way. It opens with Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, stating that he believes the "genetically engineered crops may be the most dangerous additives introduced in our food supply in our history." He goes on to say that eating the Simplot GMO potato "might regulate our own gene expression, causing serious problems, possibly death."

Unfortunately, this scary, fearful false hyperbole is winning in the public domain.

Oranges and potatoes are symbols of today’s dilemma about the future of food. Our society is very close to throwing in the towel and concluding that all GMOs are bad. They simply are not. Nor are they all good.

We need technology in all parts of our life for a more sustainable world, including food. The filter for GMOs should not be some black-and-white approach. It should be case-by-case, with its evaluation based on objective evidence answering these questions: Will the world be a better place because of GMOs used in X product? Will the product be safer, more nutritious and use fewer natural resources?

We also need the science-based NGOs to step up and speak out. Most of them privately agree that some GMOs have potential and may help with better outcomes for people and our planet. Yet they are afraid to clash with the campaign-based NGO groups that pitch the emotional fight against GMOs. Emotional and convenient "science" is clearly winning this debate to the detriment of our society and our future.

This needs to change. We want oranges at the grocery story 10 years from now. We should desire potatoes with less waste and acrylamides.

Let’s give GMOs a chance and an open mind. Let’s get back to inconvenient science, which requires a dogged effort to dig in for the truth. 

More on this topic